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More on how to kill a major project without killing your career

This is the second part of our series on a CIO who has to handle an SAP expansion project that is over budget and taking way too much time.

When we last left our CIO, Christine, she was on her way to the quarterly steering committee unsure of how to handle an SAP expansion project that is over budget and taking way too much time. She just bumped into her consultant, Martin, and hoped that he could give her some sage advice on how to handle the problem without it killing her career.

OK, Martin, now that you know the basics of the story, what should I do?

"This is a tough situation, Christine. Not so much because of how the project is going (although that's hardly helpful) but because of where you are personally in it. I feel your pain. But this does not have to be a career killer. There are a few things you can do, even if you haven't already laid the political groundwork."

Obviously, I can't blame any of my own people; I have no one to blame but myself. Or the vendor. They knew those modules weren't ready and sold them to us anyway.

"If you're asking Who's to blame? especially at this point in the process, you're playing the wrong game. You're operating at the wrong level. You feel bad about your mistakes? You feel guilty?  Get over it. Pointing blame -- whether you're dumping on your own people, on the vendor, or on yourself -- is all beside the point and thoroughly unproductive. Blame has nothing to do with any of what I'm going to recommend."

So what then are you recommending? How do I deliver the bad news? Where do I start?

"First off this meeting really shouldn't be about delivering "bad news." I want you to differentiate between delivering bad news and shinning a bright light on a problem; and that is where you start. Tell the committee the project isn't going as well as you would like and you've got some serious concerns. Outline the nature of the concerns and where they are coming from. But remember, senior executives do not like to be brought a problem without potential solutions. So let them know that you will be rapidly developing a set of options for handling the situation. Keep this update quick and fact-based and commit to a date when you will have a set of potential solutions."

Makes sense. Then what?

"The next thing you have to do is de-personalize your analysis. Remember, it's not about you; it's about the project, the original objectives, the things the company needs from this initiative. Those things may be in peril. Tell the committee you want to bring in some outside experts to help you determine if your concerns are warranted or if you're overreacting."

What? Consultants! I think I know the answer already. Besides, isn't that just a waste of time and money. . . .

"It doesn't have to be external consultants, it can be other well-respected folks in your company, but good consultants can be very helpful in a situation like this. And NO, it is not a waste of time and money. Because the truth of the matter is, you do have a problem and you do need some external thinking to help provide some objectivity. And when YOU are the one asking for the help, YOU are in control and appear to be rational and problem focused. Resisting the involvement of others in solving a problem comes across as being defensive, like you have something to hide. Also, remember, consultants can often be very effective at delivering information that would otherwise not be well received if coming from an internal person. That's just the way it is."

Is that all?

"Oh no, that's just the beginning. While you're working on developing some formal options for dealing with the problem, seek guidance from your peers -- privately. Share your concerns with them in more detail, but in a one-to-one forum: short hallway meetings, an office drive-by. Listen carefully to their perspectives as individuals. Confide in them. Test out some of your options with them; let them help you figure out the best way to handle the situation. From these informal discussions, you'll start getting the sense of how to handle things. Besides helping to develop your going-forward plan, it helps move you onto their side of the table, which is part of what you're trying to accomplish at this stage. The reason this is so important is because this way you're bringing your colleagues / bosses into the decision making, as opposed to purely reviewing you."

I can see that. What else should I be thinking about?

"Now for the most important part. As you prepare the options analysis, if you can, find a way to make your colleagues the heroes. Generously share the credit with them for figuring out the best way to handle things. Remember, if you make them the heroes, they won't make you the villain. If you do that, they're going to know they can work with you in the future."

What do you mean exactly?

"In the upcoming meetings, refer to your brief talks with each of them. Whenever you're describing an idea that came out of those talks, describe it as the other person's brainchild -- even it was mostly your idea that they only modified slightly. Have your colleagues take part in the presentation of the pros and cons for various options to the broader committee, and then you back them up, not vice versa. You can't be the only one in the limelight. By making your peers the winners, you've banked some political capital and shifted the focus away from YOU and your role to the problem and getting it fixed."

Wow, that's an important twist. Any other advice before I go into the meeting?

"Remember in this meeting to keep the focus on the specific problem and your plan to deal with it. Stay away from the blame game. As much as people like to play it, explain to your colleagues that it's too early for the post mortem; first, we need to solve the problem. They will remember that professionalism. It's a good reputation to have."

Thanks, Martin, I guess I'd better get in there.

Marc J. Schiller is a leading IT thinker, speaker, and author of the upcoming book The Eleven Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders. Over the last 20 years he has helped IT leaders and their teams dramatically increase their influence in their organization and reap the associated personal and professional rewards. More info at http://marcjschiller.com.

28 comments
mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

This is one of the many reasons I ended up working for myself. I don't have to get caught up in the right or wrong of projects, I just do them and let the client work it all out.

IT
IT

Mr. Schiller: I'm sure this is an effective promotion piece for your next consulting gig with some CIO empty suit, but for those of us (as my sergeant used to say) who work for a living, this is worse than useless. At best, it may help some CIO last a few more months to finalize their exit package and line up their next gig: for those of us managing & implementing projects, it offers nothing but doom. Here?s my perspective: First, I have no sympathy for any C-level executive. They presumably get their 6-figure+ salaries & bonuses based on their knowledge, skills, leadership and business expertise. You?ve already set up the pretend situation postulating that ?Christine? had no business being a CIO. Second, it?s not the C-levels who get toasted. Sure, they may have to move on, and cut back to ?manage? on the severance package, but that?s almost always months after the staff has been decimated first. In my observation, this sort of debacle is foisted upon the staff by senior management (director, VP and or C-level) without regard to staff input, expertise or suggestion. When the truly dedicated professionals begin to speak up about project issues, depending on project phase, they are ignored, moved to another position or fired. When the fact that the project has gone south is impossible to cover-up, it?s the PMs & IT leads who take the fall (without a golden parachute). Third, what?s happened the previous 12 months? This is really a surprise? If so, then see item 2 above. Fourth, what I was hoping for in you article was not another CYA for C-level non-leadership, but how the dedicated PMs and IT leads can provide their considered advice (early, one hopes, or as soon as possible) to senior management that the project has issues. I?m not talking about griping, foot-dragging, anti-change malcontents, but substantive project issues (the lack of integrated testing, modules failing testing, code issues, un-resolved technical issues, substantive project risks being ignored, etc). How do the folks implementing projects convey this information without: 1. Being labeled as a non-team player/malcontent 2. Pushed off their current career track 3. Having their career terminated with this company 4. Or looking for a new position before 1, 2 or 3 happens. The articles could have some redeeming value if it focused on tips for C-levels to avoid the situation in the first place (such as having a solid PMO process, rigorous CBAs, a philosophy that rewards, not shoots, messengers, real leadership, real business expertise, etc.), but alas, no luck. Finally, congratulations on getting this gig. In my mind, you are simply an enabler, and part of a pervasive corporate IT problem, not a way out.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Too late now, though..... I doubt any answer from this guy would be morally and ethically acceptable anyway.

tmudditt
tmudditt

The most important point is to do all of this at the earliest possible moment and not when you're already backed into a corner, and if the problem is a people problem then it's a management decision and is no different when the 'people' is part of a project.

mcswan454
mcswan454

Mr. Schiller, I need to ask openly, what in the name of all that's holy does this have to do with killing the project? Or for that matter, IT Leadership? I'm sorry, but I need to know, and probably others who've read these articles. The project failed, and must be undone. Christine bought in (as some suggested, after perhaps too much wine at lunch) to something that you NEVER indicated was necessary to the business goals. I believe her statement was: "I can't believe I let those guys at SAP talk me into adding a bunch of new modules onto this system. I should have known the software wasn't ready. They just acquired it as part of the purchase of a couple of companies, and it's clear they are still trying to integrate the new code into the core SAP modules. I could kick myself. I really, really should have known better. Things never go smoothly after an acquisition. This was supposed to be a quick win and a simple integration to meet my customer's needs. Yeah, right. This project is going to take an additional six months, and, worse, it's going to cost us another $2 million. How am I going to tell the execs we're in trouble, and we need to consider canceling this project?" I am at a total loss as to how what you've provided in this update has any relationship to what originally attracted me to read the first part. Mind you, in my post(s) there, I suspected something like this follow-on article. AND the truth is, you suggest continuing with a failed issue -- no kill. The title does not match the article(s), and effectively is deceptive. What you've shown us here is that a savvy Sales rep can talk his/her way into anything, as long as there's enough wine to go round. By her own admission, Christine considers killing the project; perhaps the only sign of leadership she shows in both articles. She knows she failed. How does what you've provided us here show Leadership? Because I'll say it again, this NEVER had to happen, and apparently she's been misleading the steering committee for 12 months! That's leadership?!? Please, change the titles of these articles to something more appropriate. I feel deceived as I was looking for information that would teach me. I could have pulled THIS rabbit out of the hat myself, WITHOUT Martin's help. IMHO, I probably would not pay for this type of consulting from you. Why didn't Christine just go in, tell that it's going to cost 6 more months and $2 million extra, and take her lumps? Adding consultants, throw more resources? YFKMR? Or, don't you think I might ask her about the status updates we've had? I might even have notes or minutes from prior meetings. How will she explain that away? Thx. "Christine, dear, I've decided that after review, I'll relieve you of this problem, and get someone in here to return us to the point we were, if possible, for a minimum of cost and effort. Apparently, this was an unnecessary upgrade.... If however, we DO need it in the future for our customers, perhaps it won't take an entire YEAR to learn how the project is TRULY going. You'll be able to quietly leave the office: You can keep some sense of dignity." M.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

My CIO dropped a right clanger and palmed it off on to me How do I kill it without her doing me up the back for making her look bad?

J Alley
J Alley

It seems that the consensus in previous posts is that Christine is dealing with this too late and I agree. This detracts from the object of the case. I think we would learn more about killing a failed project if the example were less extreme. This case as presented seems to me to be of the boiled frog type - "I've been gradually getting into hotter water (because of my rose coloured glasses or pride) and I have finally realized I am in trouble so now how do I save my butt". We will learn some useful things because most of us have probably done this ONCE. But, this isn't a good way to teach about killing a project because there are so many other distracting learnings. And the learning is from the cautionary tale. If Christine were a true CIO she would have scheduled this meeting months earlier after identifying an increased risk and she would have done all of Martin's suggestions before going to the execs so they didn't have to wait for options. It would have been a more interesting article if the case study included a more competent CIO. Let's inject some new facts. What if a key business group was at that lunch and was sold by SAP and pressured Christine into this project? What if the business group developed a business case with benefits that have now been reduced by outside market forces? What if this was recognized as a risky project but the execs agreed that the potential benefits made it a smart risk - but now a risk identified in the business case has materialized and it is time to question the continuance of the project? In other words, what if we assume Christine had done her job all along and it is just now becoming apparent that the project is headed south for no fault of her own? In this scenario, what could we learn?

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Don't sneak into their camp; build up a reputation for always being late, *then* get to the agreed duelling/army deployment spot way early, hide in a tree... and then jump down on the sucker when he arrives. And the "rendezvous at an island, and then instead of getting out the rowboat in a dignified manner, jump out and hit that sucker upside the head with an oar!" So, in this case, for the backups, I'd recommend hitting them with the stapler, or otherwise just catching them off guard.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Not in this lifetime. The art of war, is about how to win in a conflict. Might not help you with inconsistent backups, getting that damn cellophane wrapper off though, invaluable.

dreusrequeza
dreusrequeza

Well, this article has clearly lost its direction. I really want to see how a CIO or whoever kills a project without killing their career.

mafergus
mafergus

I am still trying to figure out how to apply sneaking into the enemy's camp at night will help me deal with inconsistent backups... On a serious note, I do agree that in most organizations IT is the tail of the dog and a lot of major decisions do not have the proper input and support from IT as they should. She is taking the steps that she needs to take, but the work required to mend fences and to assure departments that the money spent isn't an issue would be astronomical. The business units where work would cease would not be happy and honestly, I am not certain where you would begin to rebuild trust with the supplier. If they are pushing incomplete product out the door, I would be loathe to continue doing business without serious contractual adjustments!

mcswan454
mcswan454

And first, let me explain: I'm going to hate myself for this reply, as this thread should be dead. The author hasn't responded to request(s) to clarify, and I NO LONGER believe he will. So.... I believe you said: [i]"Let's inject some new facts. What if a key business group was at that lunch and was sold by SAP and pressured Christine into this project?"[/i] Unfortunately, Christine (through the Author) probably would have stated her OWN case were this true. I believe we'd have been informed in the first part, that the events weren't her doing. You also stated: [i]"What if the business group developed a business case with benefits that have now been reduced by outside market forces? What if this was recognized as a risky project but the execs agreed that the potential benefits made it a smart risk - but now a risk identified in the business case has materialized and it is time to question the continuance of the project?"[/i] Then it sounds as if the business group found a solution in need of a problem.... No? It would be wonderful to infer, or even speculate upon these issues. But, as a person who writes case analogies, I do not leave up to the reader to infer what I meant. If I DIDN'T say it -- DO NOT INFER IT! As Author, I gave you the facts of a situation to gauge your appraisal. It wasn't an invite to find mitigating circumstances. Had there been, would you not agree I had been much less than forthcoming with facts? Christine certainly was. And if -- IF -- the author of the piece is expecting us to do the same, that's... (add your own opinion here). We were told we'd learn how to kill a failed project, without losing our clout. Did you get that from what was delivered? I didn't. Had, as suggested, Christine done all the correct things, would she REALLY have waited until this point -- regardless of the business group's ideas -- to bring down the hammer? AGAIN, it implies she KNEW at some PRIOR point, this was failing and did nothing! She'd have been getting regular feedback from all of her project team, PM or not. To withhold her knowledge (at some point those SAP guys HAD to come back and say "Yeah, we're going to milk you for an extra $2 Million), and allow the biz group that started this mess to cause a situation that would cost jobs, productivity, etc.; she's STILL going to get fired! Politically, she'll be held accountable. Giving her credit as a competent CIO -- and most of us are Consultants -- do you REALLY think this would have gone forward to start? Here's a question I would have asked at the outset to the SAP guys: "I appreciate that certain modules from your new acquisition may provide value for my customers. And I'm interested in learning more. Would it be unethical to ask other clients you've done this for, how their projects ran so I can establish a reasonable baseline, and account for any possible setbacks?" Or do you think they'll walk out the door on me, make me pick up my own tab for lunch? Do they WANT me to tell my business contacts about this behavior? Sure, SAP is big... Now, let's get them committing fraud by offering solutions on timetables they KNOW they cannot meet, and when asked courteously, refuse to provide references...? Hell, I'VE GOT TO PROVIDE REFERENCES. (There's this thingy called Contract Law. Very Interesting. Good-faith, etc. It's astounding.) Doesn't this sound a [i]little[/i] familiar to a certain type of scam to you? Or is it just that they're "too big to fail" regardless of less than savory performance? If anyone of us (consultants) tried this.... M.

dreusrequeza
dreusrequeza

Since this article's title was inticing enough and the first part was really going to get you thinking... Some, if not most of us, went into some sort of review and going back to basics on the aspects of leadership, management, planning, due diligence, honesty, integrity, politics, beaucracy, and so on... That would be the good news to it!!! It made us look back, stop, and think.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Obviously the higher up in an organisation the more politics and perception plays a part. These two articles were how to use politics to get nothing done, not how to use them to get an opportunity to achieve. The title was completely misleading. How to avoid the consequences of being completely incompetent would have been a better one. If I wanted political and strategic tips, I'd re-read the Prince, and the Art of War...

Englebert
Englebert

Christine has to be let go, probably more for political reasons than project management reasons. She has embarassed Sr. Management and they have to bring in a fresh face with more experience/competence to clean up the mess. Her questions to Consultant reek of inexperience, immaturity, lack of confidence, savvy, leadership and just plain naivete. As soon as she leaves the meeting, top management will be discussing her ouster.

brian.lukowski
brian.lukowski

Her comment "They shouldn't have sold it to us" is the defining clue. They didn't sell it - she bought it. She had no experience with SAP and bought the sales pitch not the appropriateness, applicability, or adaptability of the software. She apparently didn't seek outside recommendations from her peers to discover if the recommended SAP app would meet the actual need of her organization. She should go into the meeting and tell them the complete facts, her proposed evaluation plan with the possibility of a complete washout of the project, and that SHE is totally responsible for the project. This is her only chance of staying with the firm in some capacity.

dreusrequeza
dreusrequeza

She has no idea whatsoever of what she bought... technically incompetent! She was so impressed with Mattin's advice when those steps are just basics for the like of her rank... another incompetence! Not being honest of the project's direction, trying to look cool thinking that buying the SAP modules will be a "quick win"... ??? She took a shortcut into being CIO. She's FIRED!!! Submit Martin for evaluation to be promoted!!!lol

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

So apparently that's the lesson here... learn to manipulate your bosses and peers and throw that chaff around. It's not being project-oriented, just appearing to be job oriented. On the other hand, it is not helpful to go into a meeting with the perfectionist I-messed-up-so-bad-I-can't-believe-you-haven't-fired-me-already schtick. That's not appreciated in wider circles, believe me on that.

Hugo J
Hugo J

The second step is how to not let the first initial bad decision influence your career. It has really nothing to do with the project. If I had a position in top management these proposed actions would not impress me. The decison to start the project was a bad one and apparently not based on a business decision. If it had been a business decision it would not have been a problem to discuss this with the managers involved. So this whole political approach is only needed if you are responsible for taking the wrong decision from the start. Start all over instead. Admit the decision was wrong and try to address the way the organization runs the IT. Try to involve top management in IT, in the IT strategy. Make them understand that without their involvement these things can happen. Then you can as the first step propose to stop the project, blame the supplier for delivering wrong information about the modules. As the second step convince top management to take a strategic initiative how to address IT in the future. Without addressing the strategic issue you are really putting yourself only in the IT corner and not as a business person,.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

This looks to be solution looking for a problem to me. The SAP boys sold it to her, based on what? Does anyone actually know what the ROI was going to be. What opportunties these new modules would address. Not one mention of it anywhere in the post, just that implementing them tiurned out to be a tad more difficult than the sales boys made out. Can't say I'm surprised to hear that, after all it's a good while since my mom squirted me out into world. Even if it was politically accptable to kill the project, it's still a disaster of biblical proportions, SAP are not cheap. For the rest of it I agree. I know if I'd proposed this sort of lemon, and then bottled it when it turned out another one of my ideas sucked, none of this crap would save my arse.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Come up with a plan of action, get buy in, be proactive, monitor and review... OK so which bits of those didn't need doing at the start of the project as opposed to the start of the mention of the failure to do them originally not in so many words? Probably fool a management team especially if you get one of your boys to use some buzz words and jargon. Wouldn't get past anyone who's past making this sort of thimble brained muistake. A good recovery, as long as you lay off the elderberry wine the next time you get taken to lunch will do, I supoose. I loved "Obviously I can't blame any of my people" Oh yes, obviously.... LMAO

spencemeister
spencemeister

Part of what I inferred from Part Two was that it is important to get a grasp on reality. Yes, the project is over-budget and taking longer than planned. There have been some difficult and frustrating challenges along the way. None of that indicates that the project NEEDS to be killed. It may be salvageable. Christine is emotionally involved with the project. That has some positives: Project championship, fierce tenacity, a do-whatever-it-takes attitude. But it also has some negatives: Myopic vision, fear of failure, inability to be objective. Christine needs to step back from her black and white thinking and get an objective evaluation of the risks that the project currently faces and whether or not it has a reasonable cost-effective probability of success. Are there options that she has not considered that can mitigate some of those risks? It is impossible to know without an objective view. Who knows, by taking the suggested actions a way through the morass may be found. If not, she can calmly report what the risks are, the evaluation of the options to mitigate those risks, and a proposed resolution. It is critical to ignore the sunk costs. Emotionally, that is difficult. Right now, it doesn't matter how much money has been spent. All that matters is how much time and resources it will take us to drag this project over the finish line. You can't hope for a better future until you realize you can't have a better past.

ro013jo
ro013jo

I understand, I understand; I feel Christine is a wonderful person as well and will learn a great deal from taking steps to present the current state in her review to the higher ups. But, each factor of project selection, prioritization, strategic alignment, technical feasibility, etc must clear minimum hurdles. Without a meaniful overview of the stages to illustrate project deviation and stages to resume recovery puts Christine in a cycle where she will probably suggest a Go'Kill decision based on what she presents. From the brief amount of info I have read from the review, I feel success is possible, but it will place a responsibility on Christine to provide an overview of what is wrong with the process that led to the project deviation and will the persons offering the help be able to do that? A review of these links within the organization is vital to Christine not only to get the project back on track but to understand how to view the warning signs as things begin to veer off track for future projects or assignments. This presentation could potentially starve a truly deserving person of future opportunity.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

How in Cthulu's name did she get that role without knowing all of that in the first place? I'd be embarrassed about making this mistake when I was a junior tech. Believed a vendor ffs! As for rescuing, who can say from here? Haven't even heard what or even if there was a business case, where it fit in the commercial strategy and the IT to support it. Rescuing it to preserve the current investment, depends on how much that would cost versus killing and starting again of course matching it against the business need, whatever that was. All this fool has done is justify the pre-conception that 'IT' people know f'all about business.

dreusrequeza
dreusrequeza

She took a shortcut!!! Just like any other CIO we have today.

ro013jo
ro013jo

Any seasoned executive will exposed the CYA skills and ask the intelligent questions about the non-performing modules and the remaining specific deliverables. As I see it, the only thing that will save this person are successful change notices to deliver a scaled version of the project to the stakeholders.

jbmn
jbmn

Huh? This project is still alive and ticking and now has even more resources thrown at it, further sinking the wary CIO into the mire? Far from killing this project, our fictional consultant started a re-investment effort. I'm not sure paying consultants to do unspecified advising work will help any more than letting the project go at it's expensive and slow pace. What's needed here is some de-personalized courage. Sometimes you have to make brave calls, stand up and say, "This must pause, maybe even stop." I liked that part of this two-part series. Encourage honesty and not the self-deception that plagues many organizations. So, if I were this CIO, I'd stop a moment, or two, and do a project assessment. What's the burn rate? What are the alternative and lost opportunity costs if the project terminates? What about effects on credibility (for the organization) and any regulatory or organizational time pressures? Some of these software vendors are famous for this kind of behavior, so looking at this systemically is definitely in order. How exactly did they get chosen and how do we better estimate project costing on innovation? Do the costs of bringing this project back on line (because it just stopped pending cost/requirements evaluation as far as I would be concerned) out-weigh a redo with a complete re-bid, or at least a serious renegotiation with the vendor and my own legal team? What's suggested in this second part is not only disappointing, it's the wrong direction to take. How did the story line change?

dreusrequeza
dreusrequeza

the title of the article was "How to kill a project without killing your career"??? Where's the "killing part"??? I was looking forward how she's going to actually "kill it" without her going down with it.